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Street Art, Street Life

at Bronx Museum of Art (New York) 
September 14, 2008–January 25, 2009 

Wandering through “Street Art, Street Life,” I’m reminded of the title of a 1971 film by Shuji TerayamaThrow Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets. That phrase seems to capture the sensibility that curator Lydia Yee has zeroed in on with this stimulating group show that negotiates the urban street as inspiration. Covering the ’50s to the present, with nearly 100 pieces and 40 artists, the exhibition evinces how social movements like feminism and protest demonstrations seem to work in collusion with both the tradition of outdoor photography and new freedoms from standard artistic convention. The show is perhaps less successful in its efforts to represent a commonality among art movements of the past decades.

Things get off to a slow start in the first gallery, with a series of overly familiar photographs by Robert Frank and William Klein, now-canonical examples of the roughhewn, verité approach to capturing life in the cities with an emphasis on irony, gloom, and, in Klein’s case, agitation. Fluxus is included as another seed, but their Street Events, illustrated by a poster and a few underannotated photos of performances on a fire escape, go unsatisfactorily explained (the poster cryptically reads “Send 50 cents for all announcements”). A collaged gallery invitation to Claes Oldenburg’s exhibition The Street (1960) is a tentative nod to Pop art and Happenings (a more significant precursor to the equation of art with action and the performance activities displayed throughout). Ed Ruscha’s foldout book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), though, is a worthy inclusion as the only depiction of Los Angeles in this New York–dominated show. That Ruscha photographed the buildings from a truck, avoiding the confrontational aspect of social interaction on the street that marks so many of the pieces in the show, is telling. Vito Acconci’s First Sight (1969), for which Acconci photo-graphed the first view he got every time he turned a corner while walking in the West Village, is its perfect counterpart (but how ironic that this survey of pedestrian-centric art is located in the Bronx, far afield of the foot traffic for Manhattan’s other galleries and museums).

Lee Friedlander’s photograph New York City (1966), an image of a man’s shadow cast on the back of a woman, elliptically addresses an issue that reverberates throughout the rest of the show—namely, to what extent simply walking out on the street compromises personal space and privacy (issues shared, of course, with photography itself), particularly with regard to women.

from the film 'Rape' by Yoko Ono, 1968

from the film ‘Rape’ by Yoko Ono, 1968

The pursuit of a random person through the streets is the subject of both Acconci’s Following Piece(1969) and Yoko Ono’s film Rape 1968). Acconci is content to let the person off the hook as soon as they enter a building, and moves on to another pedestrian, emphasizing the serial nature of the project and his own seeming aimlessness, but Ono’s message is one of victimization, as she and her film crew follow a woman back into her home, carrying the invasion of privacy a menacing step further. Indian collective Blank Noise Project’s twochannel video Moments of a Long Pause (2008) provides a he said, she said series of interviews made in various cities in India on the issue of sexual harassment on the street.Adrian Piper tries to inhabit the same topic, dressing as a man and issuing catcalls at passing women in her performance The Mythic Being: Cruising White Women (1975). Sitting on a curb near Harvard Square (where she was then a philosophy graduate student), Piper plays not only with racial and gender stereotypes but with the assumptions one makes with only a passing glance—a Conceptualist take on identity politics. Beyond gender, surveillance and voyeurism come into play in Sophie Calle’s The Shadow (Detective) (1981), in which a detective is hired by Calle’s mother (at Calle’s request) to follow her movements on a single day. Calle subverts the private eye’s undertaking by making the object (herself) not only aware but also manipulative of its own observation.

 

The street can also be called on to provide a reflexive arena for the artworld itself. Xaveria Simmons turns a neighborhood into her studio, inviting local Bronx residents outdoors to